August 9, 2013

Donaldson blazes path to Discovery

2013 Women of Distinction - Nonprofit Creative Industries

It’s been eight months since Cheryl Donaldson’s most notable career achievement opened its doors – The Fort Collins Museum of Discovery. Creating this single science attraction from the merger of the Fort Collins Museum and the Discovery Science Center was Donaldson’s idea. Interactive, hands-on and fully engaging for visitors, the museum’s unique blend of science and history has drawn nearly 100,000 visitors so far. The $26.7 million project has also generated praise for Donaldson.

Donaldson, 48, is being honored as a 2013 Woman of Distinction for her work non-profit creative industries.

“A lot of people disengage with museums because they don’t see themselves there, and so for museums to survive, people have to be engaged in a more meaningful way,” she said. “We’ve designed our exhibits so that people will have fun while they’re discovering — whether they’re five or 85!”

A Denver-area native, Donaldson’s fascination with museums started early. “My aunt was a volunteer at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and would take me behind the scenes. So, I was hooked at a young age.”

After obtaining a master of arts in museum studies from George Washington University, Donaldson’s career took off, first with curatorial consulting positions with museums in Denver and Baltimore.

Then came a program specialist position with the Institute of Library and Museum Services in Washington, D.C., a federal grant-making agency. There she learned which parts of the country embraced museums, and which ones didn’t. The Fort Collins community did, so in 1998 Donaldson pursued a curator of collections position with the Fort Collins Museum. She hasn’t looked back, moving up the ranks to become director of the organization in 2003.

Seeing a natural link between the Discovery Science Center and the museum, Donaldson worked with community leaders to help craft the merger of the two institutions. She said timing had much to do with the success of the project.

A chance discussion in 2004 with Annette Geiselman, who was at that time the director of the Discovery Science Center, sparked the entire project. Now Donaldson and Geiselman are co-executive directors of the Museum of Discovery.

“We were both running capital campaigns to help our facilities, and it is a very organic process. We had the right people in the right place at the right time. We had to get it approved by our city officials and our boards and everybody saw the vision and was supportive,” said Donaldson.

Everyone, including the taxpayers, who approved the Building on Basics quarter-cent capital sales tax renewal, providing $6 million for the project.

“What has been accomplished by Cheryl and all those providing leadership to the Museum of Discovery will be an example for other community projects for years to come,” said Ray Caraway, president of the Community Foundation of Northern Colorado.

The unique interactive nature of the museum, and its public-private funding model, have drawn attention from museum directors across the country, who look to Donaldson for advice on how to replicate the model in their own communities.

“It’s our chance to pay it forward,” she said. “I’m a believer that museums can enhance and change people’s lives. It’s an important part of who we are as a community.”

Click to read about all 2013 Women of Distinction honorees.

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